BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota’s attorney general and a former Microsoft executive faced off Tuesday in a Republican primary likely to decide the state’s next governor, and voters rejected an effort by the Legislature to exempt pork and dairy operations from a Depression-era ban on corporate farming.
The GOP battle between two longtime friends, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Fargo businessman Doug Burgum, has featured a spirited debate on which candidate is better suited to revive a state economy that is slumping due to depressed oil and crop prices.
Rolla state Rep. Marvin Nelson was running unopposed in the Democratic primary, but he is considered a longshot in November to succeed outgoing GOP Gov. Jack Dalrymple. Not since 1992 has a Democrat held the state’s top office.
The North Dakota Farmers Union led the campaign to reverse the Legislature’s decision last year to exempt pork and dairy operations from the state’s anti-corporate farming law. Campaign disclosure filings show the Farmers Union, which has more than 40,000 members, has spent more than $1 million to overturn the law.
Supporters of the so-called ham-and-cheese law say the exemption is needed to save the two dying industries by giving them more access to capital and opportunities to expand.
Opponents said family farming had served North Dakota well and that the law was an invitation for big, out-of-state corporations to set up operations in the state.
Republican Sen. Terry Wanzek, who farms near Jamestown, and Sen. Joe Miller, R-Park River, also a farmer, were primary supporters of the legislation.
Wanzek said he was not surprised at the result Tuesday.
“It’s a lot easier to mislead people than to tell the truth — this wasn’t going to open the state up to corporations to buy everything up,” he said. “The opponents defended the status quo and offered no solutions to help the swine and dairy industries in our state.”
Stenehjem, who was elected attorney general in 2000, won the Republican convention delegates’ endorsement for governor in April. Burgum is known in North Dakota as the godfather of software for building Fargo’s Great Plains Software into a billion-dollar business, which he later sold to Microsoft.
Railroad worker Tom Kopp, 49, came to a Mandan church to vote for Burgum — even though he said he liked the job Stenehjem has done as attorney general.
“A lot of career politicians are getting too comfortable,” he said. “We need to shake things up.”
As Leslee Smith, 64, prepared to cast her ballot at the state Capitol in Bismarck, she said she voted for Stenehjem.
“I think he will continue to do a good job for North Dakota,” said. Smith, a musician.
Smith said she and her son both intended to vote to uphold the corporate farming exemptions.
Sherry Lockner, 62, who farms and ranches with her husband and son in Morton County, said she voted against the exemptions.
“I want our family farms,” she said. “It’s our business.”
Heavy rain likely was a factor in low turnout at the polls Tuesday morning in Bismarck, Burleigh County Auditor Kevin Glatt said. The city received 2 ½ inches of rain between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m., breaking the city record for this date of just under 2 inches in 1970, according to the National Weather Service.
The early turnout was heavier in Fargo, the state’s largest city, but Cass County Elections Coordinator DeAnn Buckhouse said that was expected because it’s Burgum’s hometown.
North Dakota has 47 legislative districts, and even-numbered districts have legislative campaigns this year. Republicans will have to decide primary races in three districts. North Dakota Democrats do not have any intraparty contests and did not put up challengers for Republican incumbents in two Senate seats and one House seat.
Associated Press writers Blake Nicholson in Bismarck and Dave Kolpack in Fargo contributed to this report.
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